A musicians’ non-musician

Several things have brought my late dad, Mike Taylor, to the forefront of my mind, this week. On the day this post will be published, it will be the fifth anniversary of his death, so at this time of year his memory is never far away. I hope you’ll indulge me in this little tribute.

It was a meeting with Rick Bull, the technical manager at Reading Arts and Venues, which put me in mind to write about Dad. On Wednesday last week, I met with Rick to discuss some of the technical requirements for our upcoming 20th anniversary concerts. We were remarking (wistfully in Rick’s case!) on how many years we’ve known each other. Certainly upwards of 30, since I was a small boy.

Dad was not a musician inasmuch as he didn’t play any instruments and he certainly couldn’t sing! However, he certainly loved, appreciated and understood music. But he really came into his own behind the scenes, enabling all those things that others don’t necessarily think about, most notably in 40 years of being the stage manager for the Reading Phoenix Choir. It was through ‘helping’ backstage at the Phoenix’s annual Hexagon concert that I came to know Rick. In addition to carefully planning every movement of the choir, Dad worked hard to enhance the concert experience through creating a simple yet detailed lighting plot, which he called from the prompt desk, with the excellent support of Rick and his team.

Mike Taylor (Andrew’s dad – right) overseeing the all important positioning of the piano at the Hexagon, watched closely by Norman Morris (left). As well as his behind the scenes duties, Mike was a nerveless page turner to various Phoenix accompanists, despite not being able to read music!

There’s not so much call for lighting effects during a standard orchestral concert, but I have enjoyed plotting some imperceptible fades to 40% of the concert lighting over the last few minutes of certain pieces (Vaughan Williams’ London Symphony, Tchaikovsky’s Pathetique Symphony, for example) as well as a fade to a red flood as soprano Karen Speight (one of dad’s great friends) beautifully sang the haunting wordless ending to Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony from offstage at the Town Hall. That symphony is a reaction to the First World War and I know that many orchestra and audience members found this little lighting detail very poignant. It was a real ‘Mike Taylor’ touch.

In her article for our 20th anniversary brochure former APO Chair, Emily Bushby, tells us about her first concert in the role: ‘What really struck me about that concert from seeing the inner workings of putting a concert on was quite how much care and attention was needed on all sorts of details you wouldn’t even think of…’ This is largely due to APO having a very fussy music director and for that we can partly thank Dad and the late Norman Morris, Reading Phoenix Choir’s inspirational founding musical director. During my youth, I attended many Phoenix concerts and appearances in competitions such as ‘Choir of the Year’, I became familiar with the meticulous eye for detail Dad and Norman maintained to ensure the most effective performance. I remember watching an early heat of Choir of the Year in Southampton. As Dad and Norman watched some of their competitors earlier in the day, they mentioned little things like how the staging was squeaking and how they might avoid this distraction in their performance. ‘This is Phoenix in competition!’, Dad whispered to me.

Andrew’s dad (Mike Taylor), a study of concentration as Norman Morris rehearses Reading Phoenix Choir

In addition to the skill and musicality of the musicians, it takes many hours of volunteers’ team to realise a vision for live musical performance – I’m constantly amazed, full of admiration and grateful for how much effort is put in to making APO happen. It’s a team effort and, much like APO, Phoenix was (and I’m sure still is) a close-knit family. Dad would go along to rehearsals in time for the coffee break and to listen to the second half. Despite being ‘tone deaf’ (a term Norman insisted didn’t apply to anyone!), I know that Dad ‘got’ the music. Not the notes on the page, but the emotional impact and connection that Phoenix would work so hard (very successfully) to create with each performance. Norman was a natural communicator and the way he spoke to audiences really made them feel an integral part of the performance. Through this and other means, I’ve sought to make everyone feel part of the APO concert experience, too.

So if you’re coming to one of our 20th anniversary concerts next Saturday, 29th October (either the family concert at 4pm or the evening concert at 7.30pm) at least a little bit of what you experience, both in terms of the occasion and the music, will have been influenced by these two much-missed men, who recognised the importance of and cared so much about the experience of hearing live music. I’m so grateful to them both.

And today, as an act of remembrance, I’ll play my recording of APO’s performance of ‘Toward the Unknown Region’, from our concert in October 2017, just a week before Dad left us. Conducted by the brilliant Louise Rapple Moore, I was allowed to sing with Tamesis Chamber Choir. I played the recording to Dad, whose failing health precluded him attending the concert, and he indicated that he enjoyed it. I miss him so much and I hope I can continue to make him proud.